For about two minutes, Hugh Freeze doesn’t move. He’s staring out the window of his palatial second-story office; staring onto a mostly empty indoor practice field. Three people are here to see him. He doesn’t notice.For at least another minute, he watches. The 43-year-old head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels is wearing khaki slacks with an pristine Ole Miss pullover, the mix of athletic and Oxford casual punctuated with sneakers and a haircut taken from southern banker monthly.Some noise is made. The trance is broken. The coach turns, and on comes the charm.“Oh hey, I was just getting a look at [quarterback] Bo Wallace!”His quarterback has been recovering from shoulder surgery, but the window is as close as Freeze, starting his second year as the Rebels’ leader, can get on this day. It’s early June, and the NCAA doesn’t allow official practices to resume until August.“I can’t go down there,” Freeze says. “But I was going to peek out there and just see what he looked like.”
Of course. Freeze is just exemplifying his adopted motto, ‘win the day.’ He may not be able to go coach his quarterback, but he can watch him, can think about what to tell him later, can be sure Wallace is putting in the work Freeze necessary to compete on college football’s biggest stage.“We don’t have things that are equal with opponents,” Freeze says, “We don’t have the same budget, the same facilities, the same talent, but we do have, that’s equal, is time. And what we do with our time is the one thing we can control. How do you win that time? You better win today. That’s the only thing you have is today.”
Freeze has been winning his days since he graduated from Southern Mississippi in 1992, taking little more than two decades before taking the reins at Ole Miss.The rise started at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tennessee, where Freeze was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach in just two years. Freeze installed a no-huddle spread offense and had consistent success over the next nine years, earning two state championship appearances, four regional championship appearances, and nine Coach of the Year awards. One of his final seasons was depicted in the book and film “The Blind Side” which focused on the High School career of Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher.That success got the attention of Ole Miss, who hired Freeze as an assistant athletic director in 2008.“I took a $40,000 cut to come here, to be a gofer,” says Freeze. “I didn’t come here and just walk on the field and suddenly was a coach. I came here and was basically an intern, coming here from one of the best high school jobs in America. I had a great job and made really good money and my kids were in a good school. And I gave that up to come here to take a chance.”
Freeze was soon promoted to tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, and acted as interim head coach after the firing of then-coach Ed Ogeron.Although he interviewed for an offensive coordinator position under Houston Nutt, Freeze was not selected for the job and instead became head coach at now-defunct Lambuth University in Jackson, Tennessee. There the success continued. A 20-5 record over two years got Freeze hired briefly at San Diego State and then at Arkansas State, leading the Red Wolves.In his second season there, and first as head coach, Freeze led the Wolves to a 10-2 record and their first Sun Belt Title since 2005.That got the attention of Ole Miss again. But this time, he was offered the top job. Suddenly, this Mississippi son, born in Oxford and raised in Independence, was going to be the head coach of the Ole Miss Rebels.“When I think about that I kind of get a smile because it’s still so surreal,” Freeze says, “I mean, seven years ago I was still a High School coach. I did take one short trip to the West Coast and that lasted about two months. I didn’t fit in there. I definitely am a Southern guy. But to be the coach here I feel very humbled, blessed, and like I’m living a dream.”
One year in, Freeze is not only living, but also owning that dream. After almost a decade in turmoil, the Rebels, who won only two games in 2011 and had lost 14-straight SEC games, turned out a respectable 7-6 record that included an Egg-Bowl victory over archrival Mississippi State and a win over Pittsburg in the 2013 BBVA Compass Bowl.The Rebels showed dramatic offensive improvement, making the most of Freeze’s fast-paced, no-huddle spread offense and improving their YPG and PPG averages by whopping numbers of 143 and 15.4, respectively.To Freeze, this quick success wasn’t necessarily new.
But to the fans, it was a big reason for excitement. The Rebels played close with Texas A&M and LSU. They beat Mississippi State. They won a bowl game. And in the offseason? Freeze brought in the fifth-ranked recruiting class in the country.“I mean we’ve won three national championships and six SEC titles,” Freeze says, “Now it’s been a while, but those fans remember that. So many people look at that stadium and get pride about what’s going on, and I want to deliver that pride to them.”And Freeze does that by playing to his strengths: teaching fast-offensive football; disciplined, daily, work and effort; and a family philosophy that appeals to recruits and their parents.“My gifts are in motivating a team to head in the right direction together,” Freeze says, “Recruiting and relationships and then offensive football. If you give me a budget to run, well that’s not my gift. That’s why I have someone else that does that.”
The bigger idea behind those “relationships” is that of a big football family. When he meets with “young men and their parents,” he’s not pitching a school, or a program, but a new family.“I think what we try to bring to families and recruits is attractive,” Freeze says, “I was raised in a family and in a family if you truly love one another then you care about how decisions affect those who are in that family. We take our core values from that word F is for Faith, A is for Attitude, M is for Mental Toughness, I is for Integrity, L is for Love and Y is for you.”
That goes for his football family, and his real family as well. His three daughters are around the team often and, according to him, get pretty similar treatment.“There’s discipline that’s involved sometimes that’s not fun, it’s not fun when I do it with our team. But I do think that a father that loves his children, and his love doesn’t change. And I hope I do that with my daughters and with my football team.”The protective nature of the patriarch definitely applies to his team. When news of his recruiting success broke, social media exploded with disbelief, accusations and insults.Freeze took to Twitter to confront the tide with two statements: “If you know of wrongdoing, please report it, and if you want to insult someone, insult the coach. Don’t throw those words at the young men.”“I have to have tough skin,” Freeze says. “I mean some of it can bother you, some don’t. People that question calls that’s part of it. But when they start talking about integrity and things that are important that bothers you, but I can’t lash out at that. But I did want them to know they were insulting more than just me.”Freeze knows what’s coming, but that doesn’t mean his kids have to take it. And as to the substance of the accusations, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported Freeze’s request resulted in 85 email accusations but no proof of wrongdoing.
And so Freeze’s Rebels move into the 2013 season with a focus on their field family. With a focus on winning not only each Saturday, but also all the days in between. With a focus on not just protecting the football, but also protecting each other. And with a focus not just on making the right decisions on a receiving route, but making the right decisions on the weekends as well.It’s this combination that has Hugh Freeze optimistic for the Rebels next season. As long as they win the day, they can win on Saturday.“That’s the only thing you have is today. You better win the little things like attitude and effort. So if we win today and then we win tomorrow and the next day and all the days up until [the Rebels’ first game on August 29, then we’ll have a chance.”
New Pride of the South
Hugh Freeze’s commitment to quickness has brought a turnaround for Ole Miss
Story by Doug Gillon | Photo by Kevin Bain